When did pinball come about? Well, very simple forms of pinball have been around for centuries. The ancestors of the modern pinball game were much like Pachinko machines. Unlike Pachinko, they were not upright, but did have pins and holes in the playfield. Balls came down from the top and scored points depending on which hole they eventually fell into. This is how the term pin-ball came about. The modern era of pinball machines started in the early 1930s. The first popular pinballs were Bingo Novelty Company's Bingo, Gottlieb's Baffle Ball, and Bally's Bally Hoo. In comparison to today's pinball machines, these machines were rather simple, low in cost, and small in size. They were designed to be countertop games, legs were a later addition.
The popularity of the pinball machine, like the popularity of the penny arcade, is attributed to the depression and the desire for low cost entertainment. Since many pinball operators gave away prizes for high scores, some players tried to cheat by shaking and lifting the machine. To counter this problem, the tilt mechanism was invented. Like today's video fads, many pinball machines were popular for only a few months until a newer more exciting machine was introduced. In 1933, electricity was introduced by adding a battery to the machine. As more features were added, the pinball machine was outfitted with transformers so that they could be plugged into an outlet. Lights and backglasses were added in 1934, and the pinball bumper was introduced in 1937.
The pinball machine really took off after World War II. The ten year period of 1948 to 1958 is referred to by many collectors as the "Golden Age of Pinball". One of the main reasons for the renewed interest in Pinball was the invention of the flipper, as introduced by Gottlieb's Humpty Dumpty. Two features distinguish these "Golden Age" pinballs from later model pinballs. First, the pinballs of this era have wooden legs and wooden rails on the sides of the machine. Metal legs and rails (for added strength and durability) were added in the late 1950s. Second, these pinballs also had scoring levels (10, 20, etc., 100, 200, etc., 1000, 2000, etc., etc.) built into the design of the backglass with a separate light bulb for each score, whereas in the late 1950s the manufacturers utilized a digital scoring system.
One interesting side note in history to this "Golden Age" of pinballs came on January 21, 1942. Pinball was banned in New York City due to the perception of it being a game of luck rather than a game of skill, and therefore considered gambling. To celebrate, Mayor Fiorello Henry La Guardia smashed a number of machines in front of a largely supportive crowd. The ban lasted until 1976.
The 60's brought in the idea of an earnable "extra ball" in Gottlieb's Flipper. This was done in response to many laws that had been passed making it illegal for machines to award replays. The first drop targets were introduced in Williams' Vagabond game in 1962.
The next major change came in 1975. The first non-relay-based game, Spirit of 76, was produced by Micro. It marked the beginning of the switch from electromechanical to solid state games. The first widely available solid state game (only 100 Spirit Of 76's were made, mostly due to an unattractive playfield) was Freedom by Bally, released in 1976. As manufacturers refined the process of moving to the new technology, many of the machines from the years 1976-1979 were produced both as solid state and electromechanical systems. In 1979, the first talking game was produced, Gorgar from Williams. In the early 1980's, many games introduced magnets as a ball saving feature (called magna-save by Williams). Black Knight and Jungle Lord are two good examples of this feature.
The next major revolution in pinball came about in 1991, when Data East introduced the first dot-matrix display in their game Checkpoint. Within a year, all games from all manufacturers had dot-matrix displays.
The late 90's saw the end of an era as a number of pinball machine manufacturers closed their doors. With Williams, Bally, Sega, and a host of others moving away from the pinball world, it's hard to say what the future holds for pinball. Whatever the outcome, the pinball machine has forged itself into our cultural history, and will forever remain a part of it.